Kyle Chandler's John Rayburn sits stunned and exhausted on the shore

Stretching the Rayburn Family to the Brink… and maybe its viewers, too (Bloodline, part 2)

Netflix’s Bloodline ultimately plays a storytelling gambit not unlike its antagonist’s approach to getting what he wants from his family: How many times will you reengage with Danny Rayburn before you finally lose patience and just let yourself off the hook?

Revealing a key event of the season’s ending during the first episode was a risk that wagered heavily on the pilot stoking viewers’ initial curiosity and establishing empathy with its characters  Several intense images and sounds of the Rayburn brothers struggling against the elements–the swampy morass of the mangroves and the choppy surf of the Gulf during a pounding rainstorm–with one of them apparently passed out or dead gave us a glimpse of a high-stakes “what” without any of the “how” or “why.” The tactic would act either as provocative inducement to keep on watching or as eye-roll-inducing gimmick that even the near-immediate goodwill produced by seeing Kyle Chandler on the small screen could not sustain.

John and Danny Rayburn struggle through the water in a storm (Bloodline, HBO)

But I’ve already written about this.  And you know where I came down on that score: I found the series strangely affecting and the storytelling judicious enough with its flashes both backward and forward in time to commit myself to seeing this thing through.

As I kept streaming, night after night, Bloodline delivered the kind of sibling dynamics that hooked me from the start–believably written exchanges between adults who also know one another as children, who accept each other’s opaque pieces as part of living otherwise extremely transparent lives with one another.   Right up until the point, that is, that big brother Danny shows up and–even when he isn’t cryptically or manipulatively talking about them–embodies the family’s greatest shames.

We’ve had quite the run of imperfect to downright immoral male protagonists on television in the last decade.  So much so that the not-so-likable-male-protagonist genre has birthed a complementary genre of television writing: the what-must-be-wrong-with-us piece that puts our cultural subconscious on the couch for analysis.  Why do we like these bad guys so much? Do we glory in their sins or want these men to be redeemed? Does the spate of antiheroes defy good and evil?  How has TV established itself as “serious” pop culture by telling the stories of “difficult men?”

Bloodlines engages this trend by raising questions about what makes the bad egg in a family go bad and whether he’s the manifestation or the threat of a rot that affects the whole family tree.

The answers to why Danny is the way he is and what we can expect of him are offered and processed by different members of the family in overlapping and uneven accounts and in this, I found Bloodlines continued to be fresh in its storytelling.  How much should we trust Danny?  Blame Danny? Have sympathy or hope for him?

What you found hopeful or threatening or just frustratingly selfish depended a lot on which sibling or parent you were relating to in a scene, what information they had or didn’t, what you found compelling about their own history or current relationship about the troubled, eldest Rayburn.  As a device, it brought to mind the way that George RR Martin switches perspective with every chapter in his series A Song of Ice and Fire (better known these days as Game of Thrones).  The effect is to connect you to the points of view of every character for significant bits of the action and aftermath of major plot turns.  Which perspective will you find compelling enough to sustain as your own when it comes to how to understand the Rayburn family, its past, and its present? No matter whose you chose, this roving narrative perspective makes it hard to ultimately take a simple moral view of any of the characters.

Danny Rayburn and his mom reconnect in evening chats on the porch

In that Bloodline offered a worthy subject in addition to it’s narrative tricks and good acting.  One felt were were witnesses to an examination of human behavior under strain, asking from every angle how choices made under duress are either exceptional to or deeply indicative of our character, and how those choices can go on to define our relationships if not also our destinies.

Yet, I can not help but feel all this resolved with the proverbial whimper.

Yes, the tempo of the series and its stressfulness increased with each installment.  The feel of the show moved from an ill-at-ease mixture of golden-hued-nostalgia and overcast suspense in the first two episodes to something far darker, more insidious, and approaching Breaking-Bad-stressful for the last few.  The final one-hour visits with the Rayburns provided the unique satisfactions of seeing once-flash-forwarded scenes occur in context, finally clicking into their appointed place in the giant jigsaw of who did what to whom and why.

But what didn’t click for me was a sense of satisfaction with how our characters ended up and, by extension, with whatever moral commentary the show left us with.  As some point, instead of satisfaction or even catharsis or a sense of exhaustion crept in instead.

The problem of Danny became relentless.  Instead of a persistent tug back to the TV set, the emotional tie to the Rayburn family–at some level the ability to keep caring anymore–frayed, making it hard for a viewer not to become one more disillusioned member of the clan.

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